How to avoid choking like England’s football team?

Fascinating article on how to avoid "choking", cracking when you are under pressure and the stakes are high, by Mathew Syed in The Times (subscription needed). The article follows yet another failure by England's football team to win on penalties, this time in the quarter final of the Euros. That makes it 6 losses out of 7 penalty shoot-outs in major competitions. Agghh.

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What is choking?

Choking causes high performers to crumble and grasp defeat from the jaws of victory. England's manager, Roy Hodgson, commented on the players who missed their penalties:  “They were knocking them in consistently on the training ground. But the pressure got to us.” Mathew shares other high profile examples of choking: "Greg Norman falling to pieces in the final holes of the 1996 US Masters; Jana Novotná imploded with poignant extravagance in the final of Wimbledon in 1993; Jimmy White developing a nervous twitch just as he closed in on the 1994 World Snooker title."

And choking can of course happen in business, not just sport. Mathew's words here ring true in my own life for sure: "Look closely at your own life, that career-defining job interview, perhaps, or a crucial presentation. Perhaps you fluffed your lines or found your mind going blank?"

But why do people choke? And what can we do to help avoid it happening?

Why do we choke?

Interestingly, research into the causes of choking draws on the same neuro-science as the work on the role of "memory structure" in brand choice I've been posting on.

Hundreds of hours of practice enables high performers to encode a skill in "implicit" memory. This allows sports people to perform these skills without having to think consciously. In the same way, we encode brand properties, helping us shop using implicit memory and choose 30 items from 30,000 in 30 minutes.

In contrast, beginners use "explicit" thinking, "consciously monitoring what they are doing as they build the neural framework supporting the task". Imagine going to a supermarket for the first time, having seen no advertising or brand messages of any form. You would have to "learn your way around" the supermarket over many hours or even days!

Choking happens when anxiety causes us to "seize conscious control over a task that should be executed automatically." Rather than letting our brain work on auto-pilot, we grab the steering wheel. Suddenly, an expert is "striving for victory using neural pathways he last used as a novice." As Mathew explains, "That is why Greg Norman was so woeful during the closing holes at Augusta. The problem was not insufficient focus, but too much focus. Conscious monitoring had disrupted the smooth workings of the subconscious. He was, in a literal sense, a novice again."

How to reduce the risk of choking?

Assuming you have put in the hours to become an expert in your field, the key to avoid choking is to learn to reduce the pressure on yourself. This reduces the risk of you trying to take conscious control of an unconscious skill. And I think this takes a lot of practice in itself. Mathew give an example from his own career as a table tennis player. "When I was playing a big table tennis match, I would tell myself, 'Win or lose, my mum will still love me.' It was naff but reassuring." He also gives the example of being faced with the man or woman of your dreams, which also applies to the job of our dreams: "Don’t allow the wedding bells to sound in your head. Instead, tell yourself that there are plenty more fish in the sea".

In conclusion, to use Mathew's words: "When the going gets tough, the tough stop thinking".